French Law on the Internet - The Basics and Free Resources
By Emmanuel Barthe
Emmanuel Barthe has a Licence en droit (3-year diploma in French law). He graduated from Ecole de Bibliothécaires Documentalistes (Librarian Researchers' School), and works as a law librarian researcher at BMH Avocats in Paris, France. He is a Member of the Board of Juriconnexion, an association of users of legal databases. His personal web site can be found at precisement.org
Published May 2005
Table of Contents
This article will focus on French law from a business lawyer's perspective. For a more scholarly perspective, see:
Neither is this article a detailed list of all valuable French legal resources. For such lists (in French), please see:
Here, we will see that major French legal publishers' digital offerings have very recently become mature, while at the same time free access to French law is more and more a reality. The Internet is now a powerful media for those who want to access French law.
This article will become more comprehensive - encompassing fee based resources - in the near future.
In part 1 of this article, we will begin with a quick summary of the main characteristics one has to know, i.e. the basics.
1.1. What's free *and* valuable v. what's fee-based and valuable
Free content covers two categories of web sites: mainly Government and Authorities web sites, plus attorneys' web sites and some bits of the legal publishers' web sites. The first ones provide mainly legislation and case law and, through the Administration interpretation of the law, a small part of legal analysis and doctrine. The second ones provide legal news and they analyze a number of cases.
Fee-based content will shortly cover nearly all periodicals and loose-leaf editions published on paper by traditional legal publishers.
That may be summed up in two lessons to be remembered about free French law on the Internet:
- Apart from a handful of e-journals in the Internet law field, do not look for academic, high quality comments on the free French legal Web. For digital versions of loose-leaf editions and academic driven law journals, go for the publishers' fee-based servers. If you seek highly practical databases with hyperlinks between legislation, doctrine and case law, then go to the publishers' platforms.
- But, if you are searching for an Act, some Government Decree or a recent decision by one of the supreme French courts, you should find it freely and quite easily.
For a guide to free resources, see Part 2.
Using search engines to search for French law documents
Google, Yahoo Search, and in a lesser way MSN Search, can be effectively used to dig "gold nuggets", generally more effectively than the only active French legal search engine, Juritel.info. The more effective are Google, followed by Yahoo Search, while MSN Search can only compete with them on very usual, broad thematic queries. Searching Google for French law is best done through google.fr, by restricting queries to French content (click on the radio button "Pages: France" then restart your query).
But beware, the usual limits of web search engines still remain:
- most of the content of case law databases at Legifrance is not indexed by any search engine;
- depending on your query, about 10 to 50% of the free French legal web pages available on the Web will not be in the search engine's results;
- the major French legal publishers have now uploaded the majority of their looseleaf editions and some or nearly all of their journals on their portals, accessible through subscription: Recueil Dalloz and Actualité Dalloz, LexisNexis-JurisClasseur, Lamyline Reflex, Francis Lefebvre's Navis, Mementis and some of their law journals, and Editions Législatives' Nets Permanents. Search engines do not index these resources;
- using search engines to search for French law requires a very good knowledge of French legal vocabulary. Otherwise, the results will not be relevant or will omit important documents. If you are not well versed in French law, you may have better luck using Juritel.info, as it only indexes selected Francophone legal resources (more than 2,000 web sites, mainly French); alternately, go to one of the best French law website's directories.
Legal research guides, legal web sites directories, law lists, libraries' online catalogs and legal citation guides
The best French law web sites directories are (all sites in French):
- Paris Bar Library's Directory of legal web sites, maintained by Hélène Duchesne, librarian: the perfect selection for the business lawyer/attorney, short, accurate descriptions classified by subject along the very divisions business lawyers use. Only the best, most reliable legal web sites are selected. There is only one drawback - since this directory is written by the Paris Bar Library, it cannot list the websites of any French attorneys;
- Juriguide: not the best but the most complete. Also, it uses a good subject classification. It lacks updated descriptions and URLs;
- Droit en ligne: maintained by Xavier Haubry, this directory is a good selection with short, accurate comments, but it is mainly written for law students;
- Cujas Library's Internet Resources: an academic selection, with accurate descriptions, by librarians of the biggest French academic law library. But neither the classification nor the selection are "business law oriented";
- Juridiconline's legal web directory by Arnaud Dumourier: more than 2,000 sites listed, often described (very quickly), well classified, but neither commented on nor selected.
At the present time, a lot of French law remains - and will remain - on paper. In talking about chronological coverage, here is a rule of thumb: in the private sector, the publishers have no digital content of their own dating back before 1985. Only official legal data - case law and legislation - will go back further.
Nearly all law reviews and law journals are not available on the Web pre-1990. The Recueil Dalloz starts in 1990. Les Petites affiches start in 1995, as do the G (Générale), E (Entreprise) and N (Notariale) editions of the Semaine juridique. The other journals published by LexisNexis France (ex-Editions du JurisClasseur) are not yet available on the LexisNexis-JurisClasseur online platform, but their publisher has announced that its monthly law journals - the ones that serve as updates to the JurisClasseur looseleaf editions - shall be online in June 2005. All Lamy journals but for some very recent ones are available online on its Lamyline Reflex platform.
There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule, but they don't go back that far, as, for instance, the Bulletin Joly Sociétés (1986-.). A false exception - a reference database with only bibliographic data and abstract - is the doctrine part of Juris-Data, indexing articles from approximately 1970 onwards.
Apart from the supreme courts (see infra), only a small selection of French jurisprudence is available online. The supreme courts go back to the 1960s on Legifrance and are nearly complete from 1988 onwards, but decisions from the appellate and lower jurisdictions are scarce. In fact, no jurisprudence is available online before 1958.
Full text of the civil judgments of the Cour de cassation starts with the year 1959 on Lamyline Reflex and 1960 on Legifrance. Criminal judgments start with 1970 on Lamyline and 1963 on Legifrance. Before 1988's rulings, Legifrance contains only the judgments published in the Bulletin de la Cour de cassation.
Juris-Data is the only important database of decisions of first and second instance courts. It is now part of LexisNexis-JurisClasseur and only accessible through subscription to this global service. It is a small selection -- less than a few percent of the current French lower courts production -- and the criteria used remains vague (the interest of the decision). Although its abstracts go back to 1960, its full text only starts from 1985. It is often cited for its cour d'appel decisions.
Legislation and regulation
Even the French official gazette (Journal officiel) in digital format is not really complete before year 1990. Legifrance before 1990 does not contain nominations of civil servants (mesures nominatives). And the same limit is true for Lamyline Reflex. The Textes généraux part (legislation and regulation) of the Journal officiel is, however, available from 1955 on Lamyline Reflex and from 1947 on Legifrance.
About the Official Bulletins of the Ministries (bulletins officiels -- BOs), one should bear in mind that they are not part of Legifrance, the bulk of the Government's efforts to put French law online, free. Already, two Bulletins -- the BO du Ministère de l'Intérieur and the BO de l'Environnement -- have lost some of their online content following redesigns of their respective ministries' web sites.
Official Gazette and Bulletins
- Journal Officiel for all its editions: Lois et décrets, Associations et fondations d'entreprises, Débats parlementaires (Sénat), Questions (Sénat, Assemblée nationale)
- Bulletins officiels (BOs) from all Government departments ("ministères"). They publish detail regulations (arrêtés ministériels, circulaires, instructions), especially the "circulaires". From 2000 on average, the BOs' contents are online
- Consolidated legislation (on Legifrance: Codes, lois et règlements)
Another version of the Journal officiel may be found at Adminet, where it is reproduced on static web pages. That makes them more easily indexed in search engines. Those pages also have links to the Legifrance HTML and PDF pages.
Please note that although the Journal officiel database on Legifrance may contain texts dating back before WWII, the JO Lois et décrets is not complete before 1990. Between 1947 and 1990, minor, low level texts may remain unfound. Also, not all texts have been consolidated and sometimes, the quasi-automatic techniques used for consolidation creates errors, which is where the JurisClasseur Codes et lois -- available in the new LexisNexis-JurisClasseur portal -- may help. And Legifrance's Codes are not annotated. For annotated Codes online, one will have to wait for the *future* Dalloz portal.
Official supreme courts case law reporters
- Bulletin des arrêts de la Cour de cassation (Supreme Judiciary Court): civil cases from 1960, criminal ones from 1963 (in Juriprudence judiciaire on Legifrance, check the box "Arrêts publiés au bulletin")
- Bulletin d'information de la Cour de cassation (a selection among the decisions published in the Bulletin des arrêts)
- Recueil Lebon des arrêts du Conseil d'Etat (Supreme administrative Court) from 1965 (in the expert version of Juriprudence administrative on Legifrance, check the box "Arrêts publiés au recueil" on the right of "Conseil d'Etat")
- Arrêts du Conseil constitutionnel (Constitutional Council's decisions: on the Conseil's site or on Legifrance) from the beginning (1958).
- That entire huge official content can be reached at or through the French official portal Legifrance. It should be kept in mind that most of that content cannot be reached through any web search engine, the only exception being original (as published in the Journal officiel) and consolidated acts. 
Legislative documents also are free and allow any lawyer, political professional or lobbyist to follow the legislative procedure step by step.
- First, the Prime Minister's site, which is in fact the French Government web site, publishes all the Government press releases -- especially the account of the traditional Wednesday meeting of the State Secretaries (ministres), the Prime Minister and the President -- and all legislative reform projects before they come before the Parliament. All the news from the Prime Minister's site may be subscribed to through RSS feeds;
- Then the text of the project together with explanations will be uploaded on the relevant State Secretary's web site. Every ministre's site publishes his/her speeches and the ministère's press releases;
- At the same time, the project is transmitted to one of the two Chambers of Parliament (Assemblée nationale and Sénat), in most cases the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale);
- Every project (projet: coming from the Government) or proposal (proposition: coming from Parliament) must be voted in identical terms by both Chambers. Generally, amendments are published on the same day they were voted or the next "business" day (remember: the MPs and senators often work during the weekend). After two readings by both Houses, in case of even a slight difference between the National Assembly's and the Senate's version- which happens not too infrequently - a number MPs and senators meet in a special body called Commission mixte parlementaire (CMP) to work out a settlement. It generally succeeds. If not, the National Assembly has the final word;
- To know all about the Senate and the legislative procedure before it, see http://www.senat.fr/role/index.html (in French); to know all about the National Assembly and the legislative procedure before it, see Connaissance de l'Assemblée (in French) and a quick introduction to the French national Assembly (in English). You may prefer a simplified chart describing the legislative procedure (in French);
- Both the Assembly and the Senate issue a daily newsletter listing all new documents published on their respective web site with hyperlinks to them. Documents and transcripts of the debates are usually published on their web sites within 12 hours to a few days after their release or the session;
- Often, then, the voted upon text is sent - by 60 MPs or 60 senators - to the Constitutional Council (Conseil constitutionnel) in order to check its respect of the Constitution. Major reforms often get one or two articles declared unconstitutional by the Court;
- The text, minus the articles invalidated by the Conseil constitutionnel, is then signed by the President and published in the Journal officiel édition Lois et décrets;
- Then the Administration will give its interpretation of the new Statute. Every ministre's site publishes his/her speeches and the ministère's press releases, and also its Official Bulletin (Bulletin officiel), as mentioned above. Bulletins officiels are the type of publication where most of the low level official texts are published. Among those texts are the circulaires (memorandum service instructions), which state in great detail the Administration's interpretation of new legislation. In matters such as consumer protection, labor law, social security and tax, this interpretation is often the only commentary available. In tax matters, such interpretation is legally binding for the Administration. And in any case, if one knows the existence and reference of a circulaire, one has the right to gain access to it, according to the Access to administrative documents Act of 1978 (Loi sur l'accès aux documents administratifs: Act No. 78-753 of 17 July 1978, translated in English on CADA's web site). The intricacies of this crucial area of French administrative law are summarized on the Commission d'accès aux documents administratifs (CADA's) web site;
- The Administration then issues regulations ("décrets" (decrees) and "arrêtés") to apply the new legislation. Those texts are not so minor. They may modify the whole regulatory part of a Code ("partie Décrets");
For a quick overview of the basic structure of the French legal system, see Researching French Law by Stéphane Cottin and Jérôme Rabenou.
Another major player among the French official legal web sites is the Documentation française (DF). The DF is the Government's publisher. On the Web, the DF maintains a number of resources which can ease the understanding of French law for a French speaking foreigner who does not follow French legal news everyday. The DF's web sites should be a place to start a number of your French law research, mainly thematic research and global understanding of a reform.
Summaries of French policies and legal reforms:
- Les Dossiers d'actualité sur la France (on ladocumentationfrancaise.fr): these special reports, rather short and not updated regularly (especially after the reform has been voted), summarize only the most important French political debates and reforms, such as the pensions' reform of 2003;
- Panorama des lois (on vie-publique.fr): all the French recent legal reforms, summarized in one or to pages. The Bills are clearly separated from the adopted Acts. Quite -- not always perfectly -- up to date, but quick and very handy;
- The Bibliothèque des rapports publics (BRP) (Public Reports Library), which is a repository for all the official reports written for the French Government or by one of the authorities/administrations, such as the Cour de cassation or the Conseil d'Etat annual reports. A biweekly newsletter lists all reports published on the site in the meantime. In 2004, the BRP has experienced nearly 1 million downloads;
- The DF also maintains Service-public.fr, a very powerful legal resource for foreigners since it contains a directory of the French central and local administration with names, addresses, telephone and fax numbers, e-mail addresses and web site URLs (Annuaire de l'administration) and - last but not least - Vos droits et démarches (Your Rights), a huge guide (rather a mix between a guide and a FAQ) written for the common people rather than for the professional but which gives a quick first summary of a number of subjects matters, such as tax, labor law or foreigners in France. For instance, here are the basics for a non EU citizen who wants to be allowed to work in France
Apart from the above mentioned official sources, the most important free French legal web sites also include:
- SOS-Net: a huge legal guide (in French) for the everyday person, which could rival with Service-public.fr if only its updates were more frequent;
- A major part of legal theory, textbooks and law reviews, and case law reporters on the French law of the Internet is on the Internet and free: Juriscom, Legalis.net, le Forum des droits sur l'Internet, Droit-NTIC, and Fidalweb, although not written by law professors, are de facto among the most notorious law reviews about French law of the Internet;
- A variety of papers, law reports and newsletters articles from French attorneys demonstrating their expertise. Most of that content is available on the law firms' web sites: the Freshfields Paris and Gide Loyrette Nouel newsletters are just examples. French law firms and Paris offices of international law firms also make available a growing number of the reports they write for legal publishers' law reports and they are often in English, such as this article by Xavier Renard and Julien Soisson of Latham & Watkins Paris office, on French law of cross-border mergers taken from Tax Notes International. A huge list of web sites of all the French attorneys who publish law reports is available on the Cujas library web site, France's biggest law library (alas, there is no direct hyperlink to the publications' web page of those sites, nor any subject matter classification -- which by all means would have been very difficult to build).